June 15, 1998 | Insatiable Critic

Good in Bread

        Name your drug. My aging hippie pals must have their grass. I've watched cronies go berserk at the chocolate counter. Now, just when I've got my own ice-cream craving in remission, it's bread. These are dangerous times we live in. How long ago did the first bakery trundle in tables, tempting us to linger? Was it Eli at E.A.T., or did Lanciani beat him to it? Oops, I'm forgetting Ferrara on Grand and its imperative cannoli. But this latest insolence, this Marie Antoinettish notion of more or less serious dining in the middle of a working bakery, can be hazardous. François Payard wows the Upper East Side, from croissants at breakfast to late-night chocolate fondant. Balthazar tucks its brilliant bread shop in a side pocket. Bouley Bakery has supplicants begging for the table next to the tart display. And now the Bromberg brothers, Bruce and Eric, have brought their quirky something-for-every-appetite philosophy to the Blue Ribbon Bakery on a tranquil Village corner.

        The ancient wood-burning oven is a Godzilla dominating this modest space. It had to be a bakery once the Brombergs spied the battered iron door buried in rubble in the cellar, found a craftsman visiting from Naples who understood the mechanism, and spent a year digging it out, lowering the basement floor, and rehabbing the oven's innards. Now they could really profit from their apprentice days at the Poilâne bakery in Paris. With a chunk out of the floor plan for retail and a stairwell for waiters running relays, that leaves small islands of space for the hungry.

        Determined to make dinner of it at the tiny round tables crammed into the glass-walled café, we feel too tall and slightly bruised. Good-natured waiters can't help jostling as they slither by. But like the restaurant professionals who made the original Blue Ribbon their after-hours hangout, I like the wacko mix of caviar and matzoh-ball soup that is echoed here. There's a first-rate hamburger for $8.50 and filet mignon with a truffle sauce for $26. Start with pickled tongue or foie gras. Spread wonderful rillette on a baguette or share the "Belly Buster" -- nine cured meats and Jarlsberg on a whole-wheat hero. Sip a $2.75 taste of wine or a $150 bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

        The temporary computer-printout menu, still evolving, looks like a shopping list. Herring isn't listed as an appetizer; you find it under FISH. Look under MEAT for steak tartare and in GRILL for steak au poivre (as well as steamed lobster). Smoked, peppered bluefish stars in three acts: once on its own, then in mixed company (with scallops, mussels, salmon two ways, and chive cream cheese) on the excellent smoked-seafood plate. But I find it most delicious with goat cheese on thick cuts of raisin-walnut bread. Alas, for those with no discipline, the bread basket is never empty. Slices are thick and homey, just the way they ought to be. As soon as we've explored crusty country white, oatmeal, and the Jewish rye, whole bulbs of roasted garlic arrive, and we get busy probing for soft, pungent cloves to spread on still more bread. Then comes rustic toast for the foie gras, a homemade bun for my burger, and the luscious bulk of rye in a corned-beef sandwich with wimpy dills -- "goyische pickles," the Road Food Warrior complains.

        Did I think I was thwarting my addiction by starting with salads and vegetables in tapaslike servings for the table to share? There's scarcely room on the table for beets in vinaigrette, serrano peppers in vinegar, a salad of slightly too soused but delicious iceberg lettuce tossed with red-onion slivers, olives, and feta cheese (though the tasteless green beans need fixing). But then comes a small saucer of tomatoes and a portion of peppers, both intensified by slow oven-roasting, both served with marvelous anchovy aïoli that demands to be spread -- and not on a lettuce leaf, sister. The aïoli and pickles are for sale in jars, along with the bread, which sounds cheap enough at $2 a pound until you consider $8 for a four-pound loaf of rye.

        A week later, we are six, not the ideal count for café seating, so we escape from the casual fast-food feel upstairs to the small dining area in the cellar, where early birds have snagged the best table -- a roomy round in one corner. With the no-reservations rule, I'm not sure I'd risk being six given the geography here. The only way to beat the system is to put in an advance claim on the handsome brick-walled private dining room overlooking the bakery action. You must be eight to ten or twelve skinny models, Bruce Bromberg says. But how long will they be skinny once they taste that brioche?

        Something about this bare-brick space and the oddly organized menu puts me in the mood to share salads, the unpretentious chopped Caesar with house-baked croutons, of course, and a toss of tomatoes, grilled onion, and goat cheese on greens. Followed by the smoked-fish plate, it's the perfect late-night supper. Or I'd suggest capping off half a dozen vegetable saucers with sandwiches of wild-mushroom pâté, grilled vegetables on olive bread (anchovy aïoli essential), or shrimp salad on toasted challah -- the shrimp tasting remarkably fresh and sweet in the proper measure of roasted-tomato mayonnaise. My mate insists on a side of fries. But I long for another go at the mashed potatoes, a miracle of modest lumps and immodest cream. Add a bottle of Domaine de l'Hortus from Languedoc for $36 or the Château Pavillon Bel Air from Pomerol for $39, and I don't really want an entrée. Somehow, duck breast or rack of lamb (entrées, $17.50 to $28) seems redundant, even though the squab is properly cooked and one evening's puff-pastry-wrapped veal stew elicits gasps at every table. Numb from rye overload, I can take only a tiny bite.

        Anyone with willpower will want to save a corner of appetite for dessert. Rich chocolate Bruno, malted layer cake, or profiteroles, tender pillows filled with spectacular ice cream drowning in the best bittersweet chocolate. But the rustic rhubarb-strawberry pastries that mimic the apple tarts of Bromberg's Parisian mentor, Poilâne, don't work yet. And the hot-fudge sundae needs fudge, more of it, and it ought to be hot. Now the trick for me will be to exit through the bakery proper without a souvenir. Not even a small loaf for breakfast? Not even a cookie.

Blue Ribbon Bakery, 35 Downing Street (near Bedford) 212 337 0404